Monday, May 25, 2015

Stories from Los Angeles National Cemetery

If you ever have driven on the 405 freeway through the Westwood section of Los Angeles, you have passed and probably noticed the headstones of Los Angeles National Cemetery, a military cemetery with 80,000 graves.  

Spread over 114 acres, the cemetery holds service members who fought in conflicts from the Civil War through Afghanistan.  Another 5,500 are entombed in columbariums, walls with interment niches for cremated remains.

The cemetery is full, but work is under way to expand it by another 13 acres, reachable on Constitution Avenue, which runs under the 405.  All the dead at the new location will be entombed as ashes in columbariums.  

When done, the expansion will more than double the capacity of the cemetery.  This is probably wise.  Much as we may wish for the end of armed conflict, the longer odds suggest we will always need space for military dead.  


Fourteen winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor are interred in Los Angeles National Cemetery.

The first of the medals was earned by Charles Rundle, a Kentuckian who volunteered for an Illinois Infantry company at age 18 in 1862.  One year later, when General Ulysses S. Grant assembled Union armies to take Vicksburg, Rundle was one of 150 volunteers -- known later as the Forlorn Hope detachment -- who set out on a morning in May to take a well-armed Fort Garrett with ladders that were too short and not nearly enough firepower.  A quixotic effort.
     By mid morning two-thirds of the volunteers had been cut down by cannon fire.  The others took refuge in ditches below the fort, too low to be reached by Confederate cannons.  The Confederates lit fuses on cannonballs and threw them into the ditches;  fortunately the fuses burned long enough that soldiers were able to scramble away.  Rundle was one of the few who grabbed cannonballs and threw them back over the fort's walls to explode among the enemy.      
     That night, Rundle was among the 30 remaining volunteers able to scramble back behind Union lines.  After the failure of their impossible venture, Grant fell back to Plan B: Union armies laid siege to the city, isolating it from fresh military supplies and, worse, food.  Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, one day after Gettysburg. 
     Rundle mustered out in 1865, married, raised six children on a Colorado farm and, later, worked for the post office.  He moved to California for his wife's health, and both died there many years later. 
     As for his medal, he told a Colorado paper, "Nothing but death could make me part with it."  It is buried with him in Los Angeles National Cemetery.


The last Medal of Honor represented in the cemetery was earned by a World War II infantry sergeant whose personal story is more enigmatic.  
     Christos H. Karaberis joined the U.S. Army at age 18 in 1942 in his hometown of Manchester, N.H.  We can infer from his name that he was from an immigrant family, possibly from Greece.
     In October 1 and 2, 1944, Sgt. Karaberis and his squad were in Italy, where they were assigned to take a ridge that led toward a German redoubt.  Here is the narrative from his medal citation:

     "When his platoon was pinned down by heavy fire from enemy mortars, machine guns, machine pistols, and rifles, he climbed in advance of his squad on a maneuver around the left flank to locate and eliminate the enemy gun positions. 
       "Undeterred by deadly fire that ricocheted off the barren rocky hillside, he crept to the rear of the first machine gun and charged, firing his submachine gun. In this surprise attack he captured 8 prisoners and turned them over to his squad before striking out alone for a second machine gun. 
       "Discovered in his advance and subjected to direct fire from the hostile weapon, he leaped to his feet and ran forward, weaving and crouching, pouring automatic fire into the emplacement that killed 4 of its defenders and forced the surrender of a lone survivor. He again moved forward through heavy fire to attack a third machine gun. 
      "When close to the emplacement, he closed with a nerve-shattering shout and burst of fire. Paralyzed by his whirlwind attack, all 4 gunners immediately surrendered. Once more advancing aggressively in the face of a thoroughly alerted enemy, he approached a point of high ground occupied by 2 machine guns which were firing on his company on the slope below. Charging the first of these weapons, he killed 4 of the crew and captured 3 more.              
      "The 6 defenders of the adjacent position, cowed by the savagery of his assault, immediately gave up. By his (one)-man attack, heroically and voluntarily undertaken in the face of tremendous risks, Sgt. Karaberis captured 5 enemy machine gun positions, killed 8 Germans, took 22 prisoners, cleared the ridge leading to his company's objective, and drove a deep wedge into the enemy line, making it possible for his battalion to occupy important, commanding ground."

     Not surprisingly, Karaberis was awarded his medal shortly after the end of the war. He stayed in the Army, rising to the top sergeant's rank and serving through the Korean War.  
     After World War II, he changed his name to Chris Carr.  Again by inference, we can guess that he wished to sound more American.  
     Chris Carr died in Orange County, CA at age 56 in 1970; his wife, Juanita, died seven years later.  No other personal information about him is readily available.  
     He is one of 45 military dead with the surname "Carr" in Los Angeles National Cemetery.


Today is Memorial Day, devoted to the recognition of past and current members of the American military.  

At 3 p.m., as at other military cemeteries, there will be a moment of observance at Los Angeles National Cemetery. 

In Los Angeles, the traffic on the 405 will not slow down; the moment will not be a quiet one. But the dead will remain, in great numbers.

We should not forget them.   

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